On May 9, 2013 the White House released an executive order with the title Making Open & Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information. My favorite line in the entire document is:
“Government information shall be managed as an asset throughout its life cycle to promote interoperability and openness, and, wherever possible and legally permissible, to ensure that data are released to the public in ways that make the data easy to find, accessible, and usable” (emphasis mine).
The usual approach to this type of work is to simply publish raw data in a directory or repository and then create some fencing around the data that helps track usage and distribution. Essentially, making government data “open” becomes a data dumping operation. This practice fails on all of President Obama’s three key points. First, data dumps make finding valuable information not at all easy. Second, even though the content might appear in a standard format like XML, CSV or JSON, it is hardly accessible (except for to geeks, who love this kind of stuff). And finally, raw data is hardly ever usable. Instead, it’s a mind-numbing pile of characters and quote marks that must be massaged and re-interpreted before it comes close to usability.
So, while this new directive offers an opportunity to make available a vast amount of the data the government collects on our behalf, the devil is in the details. And the details are in the interface – the API. As with poorly-designed kitchen appliances and cryptic entertainment center remote controls, when it takes extensive documentation to explain how to use something, the design has failed. There’s a simple principle here. Poor API design results in unusable data.
It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. Government departments have the opportunity to implement designs that meet the goals set forth in the executive order. They can make it easy for people to find, access and use the data. They can publish not just data but APIs that afford searching, filtering and exploring the data in a meaningful and helpful manner; APIs that empower both users and developers to successfully interact with the data, without resorting to a dashboard featuring dozens of options or mind-numbing explanations.
In the (likely) event that the initial open data release consists of mere data, companies and individuals would be well advised to resist the temptation to build a multitude of “one-off” applications, each of which solves a single problem or answers a narrow set of questions for some subset of the data. Instead, work should be put into converting the raw data into usable API formats such as Atom, OData, HAL, Collection+JSON and HTML (to name just a few). APIs should be designed with the same care that would be given to any interactive experience. Investment in tools and technologies that can properly represent the data in multiple formats while supporting various use cases and access requirements will yield great results.
Open Data APIs
In the end, organizations that know the importance of a good interface, the power of choice and the freedom of flexible representations will be able to convert raw data into valuable information, which can be consumed by a wide range of users, platforms and devices. These considerations are essential to building and supporting open data APIs.
Because – ultimately – data isn’t open, unless it’s “easy to find, accessible, and usable”.